I was pleased for her and for the profession of paid dance criticism when Sarah Kaufman won this year's Pulitzer Prize for criticism. But there are two anomalies to her well-deserved win.
First, she's one of the last of a dying breed. Apart from her and Alastair Macaulay, my successor at the NY Times, who else is a full-time staff dance critic in American journalism anymore? Maybe readers will write in with other names, but there aren't many.
Second, Sarah flies refreshingly against the grain in her aesthetic. And she has a nice taste for polemics. As she pointed out in a Washington Post piece last May -- one that triggered a roundtable discussion in Dance Magazine -- a Balanchinian orthodoxy hangs heavy over American dance and American ballet companies and American criticism, when you add in the more prominent regular freelancers. It sometimes seems now that the entire American modern-dance tradition was just some sort of blip in the history of dance, which is the history of ballet, and that the myriad experiments and innovations in European choreography are mere vulgar trash. Yes, a few historical oldsters win guarded respect, and Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown and Mark Morris have their cautious admirers. Most of these veterans have choreographed for ballet companies or had their work adapted by those companies.
That Kaufman would challenge the Balanchine/ballet orthodoxy so boldly, and then win the Pulitzer, might be interpreted as a message. Except that one wonders just how attuned the Pulitzer criticism panel and overall board are to this polemical tension. Maybe they just thought she was a good critic.
Now, fresh from her victory, Kaufman has followed up with a review in this past Saturday's Post in which she blasts a Washington Ballet triple bill as "a demonstration of the stultifying effect that the national Balanchine obsession has had on new choreography." That's her lead. She ends her second graf with: "But it's clear that when the Kool-Aid chalice was passed around at the holy communion of neoclassical groupthink, Armitage, Fonte and Liang" -- the choreographers in question -- "drank deep."
I espoused similar views during my tenure as chief dance critic at the NYT (both of us pay due homage to Balanchine's genius; it's his latter-day influence and pedantry that are so troubling). Amusingly, I was also attacked as a sexist. Kaufman concludes her lead graf with: "Crotches -- cranked open, screaming at you to notice -- hit a new expressive high mark," and remarks later that a dancer "flashes her crotch at us a few more times." I tell you, girls can get away with this stuff while us boys get blasted. Life is SO unfair...!